The resonant voice of Ashokamitran

Prasanna Ramaswamy’s documentary also records the echoes — both assent and dissent

January 25, 2018 02:46 pm | Updated 02:46 pm IST

This is not a review of the documentary on Ashokamitran by Prasanna Ramaswami. You may think I am guilty of a lack of propriety because I am there in the film reading an excerpt from his writing. But the film so overwhelmed me, I had to write about it.

I am going to share my feelings in a random manner and I hope I interest you enough to want to see it. Ashokamitran says almost at the end, “See the truth of the tale and not the teller.” I am still thinking about the layers of this sentence, can they be fully peeled? Prasanna asks him if the criticism that his tales are Brahmin-centric bothers him. He gestures as if shaking off a fly. It does not, but if they criticise his writings as not good, that would affect him. Then it would be about the tale, right? And not the teller.

The affection and the trust between the subject and the shooter is so palpable, it is like a tambura drone throughout the film, the sruti never breached. Writers and others talk about Ashokamitran, read excerpts from his work, or speak about him. If I were to pick the ones I liked best, they are Nasser and Arvind Adiga, because the film captures the wonder that the two felt when they discovered Ashokamitran. Paul Zachariah cannot believe that this unsurpassed gem was there so close to Kerala undiscovered by him till a few years ago. There is a shy regret in his smile.

Prasanna has registered the voices of non-admiration too. That is as it should be. Ashokamitran does not defend himself; he says this is what I write. Charu Nivedita says no other writer has written about the Woman as Ashokamitran has, and at the other end Rohini says she is disappointed with Ashokamitran’s portrayal of women in film industry. Prasanna wants us to find the truth for ourselves while the writer gives his gentle slanted smile.

The reading goes on about a cricket scene, and alongside we see young boys playing cricket, and there is a group photo of the boys posing for Prasanna. One person says that Ashokamitran does not directly state what he wants to say but hovers around gently, but he has actually spoken it, only you must catch his voice. Prasanna too hovers around and we see Shylaja buying flowers at the Tiruvallikeni kovil. That is an exceptional musical movement — the temple, the mosque, the muezzin, the Azhvar and of course Bharati.

Two disciples of Gundecha brothers are singing even as the suburban train whizzes past; Ahsokamitran is crossing the road at Dr. Natesan Park (when he does not go to the Park one day, the spirit of Dr. Natesan asks him why!), the studio with the light boys and the drive round Hyderabad with the voice-over of the writer telling himself how the city has changed so much. Each scene resonates with something that he wrote and Prasanna registers it for us.

Protest, strong and gentle

When Chandru escapes from the young thin girl, whose ribs can be counted, offering herself to him as qurbani so that her family can be saved during the Hyderabad riots, he feels the pangs of guilt and a deep shame on behalf of all humanity. Ashokamitran’s passion and pain about this world which extracts such startling responses from a child, is there for all to see. His protest is strong and at the same time gentle.

In all her creations Prasanna has painted her protest, but there has always been an “aracheetram” (“Righteous anger” is not a really good translation... the hiss of the anger cannot be heard in English!) in them. In this film too she makes her protest; only it is strong but gentle. The almost imperceptible exchange between her and Ramani (I think it is him) that nothing has changed even today as far as riots ago, does exactly that, strong but gentle like Ashokamitran.

Prasanna asks Ashokamitran about the importance of the family. He tells her that the people of the East give respect to the structure of the family whereas those of the West do not. The writer shifted from Hyderabad to Chennai for reasons that involved family interest. He says the shift did not make a great change to those concerned. But he believes that the sacrifice must be made, no regret if it went fruitless. He gave that attention to whatever he engaged himself with — his friends, the bench on Natesan Park, his family, his cycle and his writing.

In the closing scenes, he is at a meeting to felicitate him and he thanks everyone for the patience with which they listened to him. Again the slanted smile. Had he been present for the premiere at The Hindu ’s Lit for Life festival, he would have stood up with the same slanted smile and thanked us for our patience. His spirit must have been there watching all of us much like Ku. Azhagiriswami, who in Ashokamitran’s words must be “watching the fun from Chengalvaroya Street” had he been roaming there as a spirit. But I wish he had stayed on for at least 11 months to see this tribute by Prasanna, her head and heart working together so gorgeously.

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